American Consumers Newsletter

by Cheryl Russell, Editorial Director, New Strategist Press
August 2008

The Middle Class Just Blinked

1. Hot Trends: THE MIDDLE CLASS JUST BLINKED
2. Q & A: WHO CARES ABOUT POLAR BEARS?
3. Cool Research Links: NEW POPULATION PROJECTIONS, WORLDOMETER, PEAK TIMES OF DAY, AND INCOME VOLATILITY
4. New book from Cheryl Russell: BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW
5. New from New Strategist: A TO Z GUIDE TO AMERICAN CONSUMERS, AMERICAN ATTITUDES, and AMERICAN GENERATIONS

1. Hot Trends

The Middle Class Just Blinked

The back-to-school season is losing its luster. The traditional college student population is shrinking, according to the Census Bureau–an unexpected development that may be a harbinger of worse times to come for the higher education industry. The number of full-time students attending four-year colleges fell by 337,000 between 2005 and 2006 (the latest data available). This 4 percent decline, to 7.7 million, is unprecedented and occurred although the number of high school graduates is at a record high. The decline also defied projections by the National Center for Education Statistics, which had forecast a rise in full-time enrollment at four-year schools to 8.2 million.

The drop in traditional college enrollment is a sign that the increasingly strapped middle class has reached the tipping point. According to Pew Research Center, 79 percent of Americans say it is harder than it was five years ago for the middle class to maintain its standard of living. That is putting it mildly. Staring down depreciating houses, gas guzzling cars, rising food prices, stagnant wages, unaffordable health insurance, tightening credit standards, and spiraling college costs, the middle class just blinked. It can no longer afford to keep up appearances–even for the sake of the kids. You know families are in crisis when parents are forced to cut back on their investment in their children. The downturn in full-time college enrollment marks the beginning of a new era for the middle class as it reevaluates the costs and benefits of the traditional college experience.

It’s about time. For decades, the nation’s 2,600 four-year colleges have brazenly raised prices much faster than the cost of living and still had students knocking down their doors. The college experience became yet another bubble market. The question was not whether the kids would go to college, but which college they would go to. College brands were as much of a status symbol as a Lexus in the driveway. In the competitive frenzy to get their children into the best school at any cost, parents ceased to consider the fundamentals. This explains why the cost of a college education could double between 1976 and 2006 while median family income grew by only 16 percent, after adjusting for inflation. It also explains why two-thirds of bachelor’s degree recipients graduate with debt. The biggest increase in debt has occurred among students from the middle class, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

With the economy teetering on recession, credit tightening, and housing values falling, the cost of the traditional college experience now far exceeds what the middle class can afford. The bubble has burst. To be sure, millions of young adults still yearn for the traditional college experience and are scrambling to pay the bills. Applications for federal student aid were up 17 percent through the first six months of this year, according to U.S. News & World Report. But many will be disappointed with the increasingly meager federal handouts. Four-year colleges have become so expensive that the maximum Pell grant covers only 32 percent of the average price of a public school–down from 52 percent two decades ago, according to the College Board.

The American middle class is rearranging its priorities. This may be bad news for overpriced four-year schools. But it is not necessarily bad news for financially savvy families, who have boosted the number of full-time students at two-year colleges to an all-time high.

By Cheryl Russell, editorial director, New Strategist Publications
If you have questions or comments about the above editorial, e-mail New Strategist at demographics@newstrategist.com.

BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW

Percentage of young and old who use the Internet:
18-to-29: 87
65 or older: 32

 

2. Q & A

Who Cares about Polar Bears?

Global warming could cause the extinction of the polar bear, but do Americans really care? Maybe not so much.

When asked how much it would bother them if global warming caused polar bears to become extinct, only 46 percent of the public says it would bother them “a great deal,” according to the General Social Survey. An almost equally large 44 percent say the extinction of polar bears would bother them only “some” or “a little,” and 10 percent say it would not bother them at all.

It takes something more personal to alarm the American public. When asked whether it would bother them a great deal if global warming caused sea levels to rise more than 20 feet, a much larger 71 percent of the public says yes. No one wants to give up their week at the beach.

When the General Social Survey probed the public’s attitude toward five global warming problems, the rise in sea level was the issue that concerned Americans the most. Number two was the melting of the northern ice cap. The extinction of polar bears ranked a lowly fourth, behind the threat to the Inuit way of life. Worries about arctic seals came in last.

The General Social Survey also asked the public how much influence environmental scientists should have in formulating global warming policy. The results are disturbing: only 49 percent of Americans think environmental scientists should have a “great deal” of influence on global warming policy.

By Cheryl Russell, editorial director, New Strategist Publications. For more information about Americans’ attitudes toward science, see the new 5th edition of American Attitudes: Who Thinks What about the Issues that Shape Our Lives. If you have any questions or comments about the above Q & A, e-mail New Strategist at demographics@newstrategist.com.

BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW

Age group that spends the most time grocery shopping: 65 to 74.

 

3. Cool Research Links

To keep up-to-date on ever-changing demographics and lifestyles, check out these useful links.

Population Projections
Much bigger. Those two words sum up the difference between the Census Bureau’s earlier set of population projections, produced just four years ago, and the latest set, released last week. By 2050, the U.S. population will stand at 439 million rather than the 420 million previously projected. Most of the difference is in the size of the Hispanic population. Hispanics are expected to number 133 million in 2050, according to the new projections, and account for 30 percent of the population. That’s up from 103 million and 24 percent of the population in the old projections to 2050. The Census Bureau now projects that minorities will become the majority of Americans in 2042, eight years sooner than in the older projection series.

Worldometers
Do not visit this web site if you are prone to motion sickness, because it is all about how fast things are changing–updating the world’s demographic and economic statistics in real time as you watch. See the world’s population grow, the number of books published, computers sold, and calories consumed. Also check out the steady increase in the number of people who are overweight. A fun and informative web site.

Peak Times of Day
Get these numbers by visiting the American Time Use Survey home page and  scrolling down to “New Tables.” There, click on “Table A-3. Percent of the population engaging in selected activities by time of day,” which has the latest of the many amazing findings from the American Time Use Survey. Time use researchers have calculated the percentage of Americans who participate in a variety of activities by time of day, based on data collected from 2003 through 2007. Shown below are the times at which the largest percentage of Americans aged 15 or older participate in selected primary (main) activities on an average day:

Sleeping, 3 am, 94 percent
Working, 11 am, 31 percent
Eating and drinking, noon, 18 percent
Shopping, 2 pm, 4 percent
Food preparation and cleanup, 6 pm, 8 percent
Socializing and communicating, 7 pm, 7 percent
Watching television, 9 pm, 34 percent

Trends in Income Variability
At this site you can access the Congressional Budget Office analysis “Recent Trends in the Variability of Individual Earnings and Household  Income,” which examines year-to-year changes in incomes. The research effort uncovers extraordinary income variability. Overall, 20 percent of workers saw their real earnings fall by 25 percent or more in the past year, and 19 percent saw a 25 percent or larger increase. Not surprisingly, low-income workers are most likely to experience a decline. Only 14 percent of workers in the lowest earnings quintile have stable incomes over a year’s time, while 46 percent see their earnings fall by at least 25 percent.

BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW

Age group that gets the least amount of sleep: 45 to 54.

 

 

4. New Book: Bet You Didn’t Know

If you like this newsletter, you will love this book. Here’s why:

Bet You Didn’t Know is a marvelous compendium of smart, tart essays on modern life, each built around a single scientific fact. There is something to be learned, savored, discussed, and laughed about on every page.”

    –Daniel Gilbert, Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of Stumbling on Happiness

Statistics maven Cheryl Russell–editorial director of New Strategist Publications and the former editor-in-chief of American Demographics magazine–has spent a career tracking down facts. In Bet You Didn’t Know, a fast-paced adventure in trend spotting, she separates facts from fantasy and applies a hefty dose of common sense to provide a deeper understanding of the processes at work in American society.

Order your copy of Bet You Didn’t Know for just $18.95 from New Strategist Publications (ISBN 978-1-59102-635-8).

 

 

5. New Books and Updates of Bestsellers

A to Z Guide to American Consumers
Need a research assistant? Here is one that is reliable and does not have to be added to the payroll: The A to Z Guide to American Consumers: Quick Links to Free Demographics. For only $59.95–or an even better $49.95 if you opt for the handy electronic version–you can get the demographic information you need in just a few keystrokes. The A to Z Guide is your quick link to free information about topics ranging from Adoption to Zip Code Demographics. Plus, there is a contact list of 54 major surveys or data collection efforts ranging from the American Community Survey to the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System that provide demographic information about the U.S. population, all available for free or a nominal charge.

(ISBN 978-1-933588-97-1) Just $49.95 for the electronic version, which can be downloaded today, or order the hard copy for $59.95. To see the table of contents, sample pages, and more, click here.

American Attitudes
Researchers who want to explore Americans’ changing attitudes can rejoice: the new fifth edition of American Attitudes is finally here. American Attitudes: What We Think about the Issues That Shape Our Lives reveals what the public thinks about topics ranging from premarital sex to global warming, how Americans feel about their money and their marriages, what our hopes for our children are, how often we socialize and with whom, our religious beliefs, political leanings, and working conditions. It shows those answers by the demographics that shape perspective–sex, age, race, and education. American Attitudes also compares attitudes in 2006 with 1996, examining how opinions have–and have not–changed during those 10 years. Please note that the electronic version of this title includes links to spreadsheets of the book’s 321 tables.

(ISBN 978-1-933588-93-3) Just $79.95 for the electronic version, which can be downloaded today, or order the hard copy for $89.95. To see the table of contents, sample pages, and more, click here.
American Generations
Joining the lineup of updated titles is the long-awaited sixth edition of American Generations: Who They Are and How They Live, a superior resource for researchers who want to quickly and easily compare and contrast the five living generations–Millennial, Generation X, Baby Boom, Swing, and World War II. Opening with an in-depth overview of the demographics of the generations, American Generations‘ 12 chapters examine attitudes (a newly added chapter) education, health, housing, incomes, labor force, living arrangements, population, spending, time use (a newly added chapter), and wealth. Please note that the electronic version of this title includes links to spreadsheets of the book’s 273 tables.

(ISBN 978-1-933588-95-7) Just $79.95 for the electronic version, which can be downloaded today, or order the hard copy for $89.95. To see the table of contents, sample pages, and more, click here.